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first generation college student
Leslie Smith

Since way back when I was a little girl, back when I was just starting kindergarten and my hair was still the color of the corn silk in my grandma’s garden, my momma would tell me that I needed to always do my very best in school so I could grow up and get out of that little town called London down in Eastern Kentucky and make something of myself.

London was a small town, definitely not the smallest of course, but was indeed one of the poorest — and not just regular poor, it was like chronic poor, the kind that seemed to be contagious and incurable at the same time.

It was like a never-ending cycle of poverty, passed down from generation to generation, leaving each new generation with a smaller and smaller glimmer of hope to escape the small mile radius of those city limits.

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Growing up in a small, Eastern Kentucky town meant nobody grew up in neighborhoods, we all grew up in hollers and everybody had an uncle that was in jail for making meth.

Drugs are just a part of the Kentucky town I grew up in, passed down like the poverty that ran through its veins. As each year of high school went by, I watched more and more of my classmates and friends give up the fight for an education and drop out, my class size diminishing by roughly two hundred students.

When I was little I didn’t know what that meant, but each year as I got older the word meth had more and more meaning as I watched my classmates come to school in the dead of winter without a coat on because their parents were too high to dress them properly, and then later those kids would drop out of high school at sixteen and a year later I would see them on the news for a meth bust.

Drugs are just a part of the Kentucky town I grew up in, passed down like the poverty that ran through its veins. As each year of high school went by, I watched more and more of my classmates and friends give up the fight for an education and drop out, my class size diminishing by roughly 200* students.

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As much as my high school guidance counselors, teachers, and even perhaps lunch ladies tried to encourage students to stay in school, education was simply not a priority in London, Kentucky — a phenomenon not too uncommon in the rural Eastern part of the state.

A mere 250-something students, including myself, managed to walk across the makeshift stage in our gymnasium to receive our diplomas, and even fewer of us were able to pursue higher education after graduation.

The first time I had ever actually considered attending the University of Kentucky was when a counselor at my high school called me down to her office and asked me about my plans for the future and encouraged me to join her and a few of my classmates on a campus tour of the university that she had somehow managed to pull together.

I remember falling in love with the campus as soon as I first stepped foot onto that cobblestone walkway, and since that moment, I was determined to do whatever it took to somehow receive my diploma from the University of Kentucky.

The process leading up to my actual enrollment at the school was long and confusing, especially since I was a first generation college student and it seemed as if the FAFSA was actually an encrypted code with the sole purpose of being impossible to decode.

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Everything was completely new and scary to me, and it took my mother and I at least a couple hours to fill out the few pages of forms to complete the FAFSA — and that was only the beginning. I worked closely with my guidance counselor, who informed me of the other scholarship opportunities I would be able to apply for.

I think I wrote at least twenty scholarship essays throughout my senior year and the anxiety of waiting to hear back about the recipients was almost enough to make me go insane. Finally, I heard back, and cried endlessly with tears of joy to hear that I had received enough financial aid and scholarship money to not only attend the University of Kentucky, but to attend it cost free!!

I have now been a student at the University of Kentucky for two years, and my time as a Wildcat has been the most incredible, eye opening experience of my entire life. I am a Gender and Women’s Studies major, and through my course work, I have been able to learn about the poor, Appalachian region that I come from and get a better understanding of why the things I saw and experienced while growing up in that area occurred and are still occurring every day.

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Of course, I have always loved to learn, but not all the lessons I have received from going to college were taught in a classroom. I have met so many new, amazing people from all different backgrounds and experienced so many new cultures and each day I find another small piece of the puzzle of the meaning of life.

Of course, I went to college with the intent of gaining the education I need to get a job in my field — domestic violence abuse and counseling — a job that will be fulfilling toward my passions and change lives for the better, but pursuing higher education has given me so much more than just that.

The Hechinger Report’s Emmanuel Felton recently wrote an article about how Kentucky is preparing students for careers even when they are not college bound. I’m glad to see that there are more options. But for me, college was the right path.

Attending college has changed me, not just in the way that I have been new places and learned new things, but it has changed the very center of my being, the way that I think and believe, and the way that I experience life and the world around me.

I wouldn’t give up or change a single thing about my journey and adventure in pursuing my education, for it has made me who I am today, and I have never been more sure of my passion and ability to change the world, one step at a time.

Leslie Smith is a student at the University of Kentucky.

*Clarification: This figure is the author’s own estimate of how many of her peers left her during her entire school career, not the high school drop out rate.

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